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Top 10 Giants who could be upset early

3/11/2011

After giving you the lowdown Thursday on the most likely teams to pull off upsets against the big boys, we're now moving on to which Giants are candidates for first-round losses and which look safe, according to our statistical model. (What's a Giant? Simply an NCAA tournament team that's not a potential Giant Killer -- check out our methodology, for free, right here.)

Before we get into the numbers, here's the big picture: Giants are very, very lucky with the way the NCAA tournament field is breaking in 2011. Our model suggests four to 12 big-school teams are vulnerable to early upsets, an historically huge number. But because of quirks in seedings and matchups specific to this year, the number of actual Goliaths isn't likely to be anywhere near that high.

For one thing, because it was a down year for the power conferences in general, mid-majors will probably send their best teams to better-than-usual seeds -- all the way up to 8s and 9s for schools that will be favorites and near-favorites in the first round. And if those teams win once, their reward in the second round -- and their first contests as deep underdogs and potential Giant Killers -- will be games against No. 1 seeds in the second round. The George Mason Patriots, Old Dominion Monarchs, UNLV Rebels and Utah State Aggies are all among our top 10 potential Killers, but could all face this fate. If you're a shaky Giant like the Arizona Wildcats or Florida Gators, you probably won't have to face one of these lethal 'dogs. The Pittsburgh Panthers or Kansas Jayhawks will be doing your dirty work for you.

For another, if you look beyond those tough 8 and 9 seeds toward who's populating the very lowest regions of your brackets, you'll see something missing. Instead of a whole bunch of small-conference champions who dominated their regular seasons, there will be teams that surprisingly knocked off their league's toughest representative in their league tournaments over the past couple of weeks. Some of those conference-leading squads, particularly the Charleston Cougars and Fairfield Stags, would have been dangerous Giant Killers, but they ended up being beaten by teams that will have more trouble taking down the Goliaths. Here at GK Headquarters, we were rooting hard for the Cleveland State Vikings, Iona Gaels and Virginia Commonwealth Rams, teams with great Giant Killing potential, during conference tourneys. Instead, we got the Indiana State Sycamores. Good team, but they don't conform to our numbers well.

We're still trying to figure out if small-conference tournament upsets are a trend, or just random. We're also trying to figure out why small conferences are so eager to send their fourth- or fifth-best teams to represent them in the NCAA. But in the meantime, vulnerable Giants can enjoy the results.

You're probably quite familiar already with the records, players and styles of many of this year's Giants -- and if you're not, you surely will be soon. We're not going to try to convince you that any of them are bad teams, because they're not. But for each of the 10 Giants our model says are the most vulnerable, we will offer one or two key weaknesses, serious problems that, if they crop up once the tournament begins, could lead to an early exit -- especially if targeted by the right Killer.

As you'll see, these weaknesses focus almost exclusively on turnovers and 2-point shooting. Whereas Giant Killers need to execute risky plays to win, Giants need to keep steady to avoid losing. Logic says that if superior teams hold on to the ball and take high-percentage shots, their edge in talent will translate into results, and our model agrees. It's the teams that don't or can't remember that which are the most vulnerable at this time of year. Beware!

1. Vanderbilt Commodores (75.9 on a 100-point Vulnerability scale)

KEY WEAKNESSES: The Commodores suffer a huge number of steals (10.4 percent of possessions) and blocks (10.1 percent of 2-point shots). They also generate turnovers on just 17.9 percent of opponent possessions, ranking 298th in the NCAA.

2. Arizona Wildcats (57.4)

KEY WEAKNESS: Opponents are shooting a scorching 50.2 percent on 2-point attempts against the Wildcats, ranking them 267th in the country at the most important category of defense for a Giant.

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (50.9)

KEY WEAKNESSES: The Irish are nearly last in the nation in seizing the ball from opponents, with a turnover percentage of just 16. They're also allowing opponents to shoot 35.7 percent on 3-point attempts (239th in the NCAA).

4. UCLA Bruins (49.9)

KEY WEAKNESS: They throw the ball away on more than 22 percent of their possessions; it's a miracle of the spreadsheets that the Bruins don't rank first on this list.

5. Florida Gators (49.0)

KEY WEAKNESS: Letting opponents shoot 47.2 percent on 2-point attempts, merely average, which leads to 58 percent of opponent points coming from inside (14th highest in the country).

6. Temple Owls (48.6)

KEY WEAKNESS: Allowing opponents to shoot a better-than-average 34.2 percent from downtown.

7. Michigan Wolverines (47.4)

KEY WEAKNESSES: One of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the country (ORs on 25.8 percent of misses, 327th in the nation). Very few steals, leading to few turnovers (18.8 percent of opponent possessions, ranking 254th).

8. Butler Bulldogs (46.9)

KEY WEAKNESS: Opponents are shooting 48.7 percent from inside, helped by the fact the Bulldogs block only 4.5 percent of 2-point attempts (335th in the NCAA).

9. Florida State Seminoles (46.1)

KEY WEAKNESS: The Seminoles lose the ball even more frequently than UCLA (22.8 percent of possessions, 304th in the country), and even more often than their outstanding defense steals it from opponents.

10. Georgetown Hoyas (42.7)

KEY WEAKNESS: Stop if you've just heard enough of us making this same complaint, but the Hoyas turn the ball over on 20.7 percent of possessions, while grabbing just 18 percent of opponent possessions, the second-worst gap (behind UCLA) among all Giants.

Here is a list of the 10 safest Giants:

1. St. John's Red Storm (< 2.0)

2. San Diego State Aztecs (4.3)

3. Pittsburgh Panthers (5.7)

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9.3)

5. North Carolina Tar Heels (9.9)

6. Kansas Jayhawks (16.7)

7. Texas Longhorns (17.3)

8. Wisconsin Badgers (17.4)

9. Kentucky Wildcats (19.3)

10. Syracuse Orange (20.1)

St. John's scores 57.4 percent of its points from inside (31st in the NCAA), while allowing opponents to score only 44 percent of theirs on 2-point attempts (ranking 338th). The Red Storm lose the ball on just 18.7 percent of possessions, while generating turnovers on a whopping 24.3 percent of opponent possessions (14th in the country). The Big East tournament has already demonstrated that the Johnnies can lose to another Giant, but our model says they are set up perfectly to survive the early rounds of March Madness.